The Family tree

Right next to the gate of the large house at the end of the quiet tree-lined street was the house of the Sharmas.  The house overlooked a small shallow lake which was not easily accessible by road and so it was like living in nature and still being in the city. The lake was surrounded by a variety of trees. But it was the huge tree outside Rahul’s bedroom window which was everyone’s favourite.

His father had been a young boy when his great-grandfather had planted the seed and asked him to take care of it. Much to his father’s delight, in a few days a little leaf appeared and with the tender loving care of the entire family the sapling had grown into the massive tree that peeped through Rahul’s window. It was not just any tree; it was a mango tree with its branches spread out wide as if hugging those all around. At the first sign of dawn, birds would throng the tree to continue their conversations from the previous day and at dusk the owl who lived in the trunk of the tree would venture out to hoot at the moon.  At the onset of the monsoon, the smell of the wet mud would fill the air and the leaves would glisten with the droplets of water. But it was in summer that the tree was at the pinnacle of beauty. The bright sunlight would shine on the leaves giving them a sparkle but it was when the luscious mangoes hung from the fruit-laden tree that it looked its most spectacular.

The tree laden with its glorious fruit

During early summer when not just the markets but every street would be full of mangoes in various shades of yellow, the tree would be laden with green fruit. Rahul’s father had told him that the mango was a local variety which would ripen very late in summer when the cool monsoon breeze descended upon the city and the dark clouds started making their appearance in the skies. Even when ripe, the fruit would remain mostly green on the outside, with a little red blush. Cutting open a ripe mango however would uncover a dark orange flesh which was completely fibre-less. The family tree mango had a signature flavour that could be best described as rich and spicy. 

The mango was no competition to the Alphonso, one of the most prized fruits in the country. The Alphonso’s voluptuous shape and golden-yellow skin with a tinge of red which spreads across the top would reveal a succulent saffron-coloured flesh that was smooth and buttery. Try to imagine it as a cross between a peach, a nectarine, an apricot and a melon with notes of honey and citrus. All that, but only better.

The rich, creamy and non-fibrous, juicy pulp have captured the imagination of celebrity chefs all across the globe and you can now find it on dessert and cocktail menus across the world. It rightly holds its place as the “King of mangoes”.

The late ripening of the home grown fruit allowed the family to enjoy the fruit after they had already had their fill of Alphonso mangoes for the season. The family mangoes were not as aromatic or as flavourful and would never be as famous. They had not even been able to trace their mango’s cultivar. When the evergreen was younger it used to give a bountiful crop, now it had matured and flowered late winter but did not yield much fruit. That made every fruit from the tree precious. Nonetheless, the tree was cherished as it was the family tree, their pride and joy.

When the first fruit appeared on the tree that year everyone was thrilled. In the next few weeks, a few more appeared. Every day Rahul and Manoj the house help would peek out of the window and count the mangoes several times a day. Within a few days of counting, the duo knew the exact location of every mango on the tree. They were keen on protecting each one from the parakeets and squirrels who loved to feast on them. The parakeets were a loud bunch and so were easy to detect.    The squirrels however, were another matter. Manoj though had come up with a good plan. He had linked together strings of bells and with the help of Ravi the gardener and Jeevan the security guard they had strung bells all over the tree. Every move of a squirrel on the tree now gave a warning. Everyone in the household participated in the look-out.

The mango protection party was performing exceptionally well. They had not lost a single mango. The cool monsoon breeze blew lightly and the sweet smell of the mangoes wafted in the air. Very soon the mangoes would be ripe enough to be tugged out. Everyone was patiently awaiting that day.

Manoj was the first to spot a missing mango and the next day, Ravi noticed another gone and on the day after Mr Sharma realised a third mango had disappeared. The mangoes were not pecked on like the parakeets did or chewed into with sharp tooth marks of the squirrels. They had completely vanished, neatly pulled out of their stalks by some very clever hands.  They had a thief who had been eyeing the mangoes.

This thief though was very crafty, he knew exactly how to get his treat and escape without making a sound.   

Rahul still had vacation at college and so he planned to sit by the window the following day and keep watch.  The morning passed quite peacefully.  After a rather heavy meal and some marathon movie binging, Rahul’s eyes were dropping and before he knew It, he was fast asleep. He woke up with a start at the sound of Ravi’s voice from below shouting that another mango had been stolen. This thief was incredibly talented. Rahul was quite upset the rest of the day, that he had been unable to perform his task responsibly. He resolved to catch the thief the next day.

But that was not to be.

Rahul’s friends came over and they spontaneously decided to go out for lunch and then catch a movie. As he was returning, he saw a dejected faced Jeevan standing beside the gate and knew that they had had another loss that day. The tally of the mangoes on the tree which had been 14 when they began was now reduced to a single digit 9.  The thief was really astute. He had patiently waited for the mangoes to almost ripen and was now enjoying the fruit.

Mrs Sharma suggested plucking all the remaining mangoes, the rest felt otherwise. Rahul was adamant on catching the thief and his friends were curious with the idea of a mango thief. They agreed to come over and help.  Ravi, Jeevan and Manoj agreed that they needed more eyes and decided they would hatch an infallible plan. So finally it was decided that the mangoes would stay for another day.

There was as meeting held where they went over the cues and came to the conclusion, that late afternoon was the time the thief was mostly likely to strike. They would of course keep watch all day, but it was a few hours after lunch that the thief would make an appearance.  They would be extra attentive the next day. 

There was no sign of the thief the next day or the day after. Oy the third day, the family had finished lunch and Rahul and Manoj decided to sit by the window and play a game of cards. About half an hour later, Manoj who was staring out of the window with a look of surprise on his face. He alerted Rahul with a light tap on his knee. As they looked, a hairy paw appeared near the window, then a thin long stick came out of nowhere and was delicately placed on the branch right next to a ripe mango. There was not a sound and no real movement on the tree. Soon enough they saw a small monkey dressed in all green walk skilfully on the stick. It was just about to pull out another mango when Rahul made a loud sound with the whistle he had around his neck. Manoj joined in and the startled animal precariously made its way over the walled fencing. Someone hurriedly pulled the long stick back. Jeevan had heard the noise and made his way through the backdoor to the secluded area behind the house. Rahul and Manoj followed as fast as they could. By the time the pair got there, they could see a man hurriedly packing up his few things and trying to make an escape. Jeevan had a head start and despite giving a good chase he was able to get a hold on the man’s shirt collar. The scared monkey was holding on to the man’s neck as if his life depended on it.

After much interrogation, it was found that the young man Raju lived a nomadic life with his monkey. They would travel around putting up entertaining street shows. They had been living in the area around the lake since the past few weeks. He had chanced upon mangoes on the tree and could not resist one. When he found that Mini enjoyed the mango and for a small bit she was ready to pinch them, Raju had concocted a plan. And it had worked, till that day. Raju explained that he was not a thief. He had come to the city believing he could make some money but had realised that city folk had no time and no interest in his kind of road entertainment.  He was finding it hard to make end meets and had not eaten even a single mango this season. With a mango tree just a few feet away, he had been drawn to attempt snatching just one. When he had turned lucky in his first try, he had turned greedy. The unforgettable taste of the fruit had made him come up with an ingenious plan to try for more. As the days went by, he had found it easier to steal the mangoes with the assistance of the very talented Mini, that was, till he had been caught.

The boys let Raju go, but not before reprimanding him for his actions and threatening him with a report to the police. The household was eagerly awaiting their return, and the rest of the evening passed with the boys’ action-packed rendition of their exhilarating experience.  Early next morning all the remaining mangoes were carefully plucked from the tree. Every one of the adventurers was invited to partake in the scrumptious meal and they had a feast of the treasured lip-smacking mangoes. 

The year however belonged to ‘the family tree’ and the tale peppered with suspense and adventure would be passed through generations continuing to entertain and inspire all long after the mangoes were gone.  

The story ends there, but I felt it would be incomplete without un-peeling a bit of the history of the stony fruit and sharing a simple but delectable traditional recipe from the kitchens of my ancestors.  

Mangoes have a very long history in the Indian subcontinent and are deeply rooted in the culture. Scientific fossil evidence traces back the appearance of the mango in Northeast India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, from where it travelled down to southern India to 25-30 million years ago. Buddha himself is said to have meditated under a mango tree within a silent grove, and Buddhist monks have cultivated the succulent gems over time. The people in the subcontinent have been cultivating the fruit for over 4000 years.  But it was with the arrival of the Europeans on Indian soil that the mango seeds travelled the globe with the explorers reaching the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

 The earliest name given to the mango was Amra-Phal. It is also referred to in early Vedic literature as Rasala and Sahakara, and is written about in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Puranas. On reaching South India, the name became Maamkaay due to differences in pronunciation and was further changed to Maanga. The Portuguese who arrived at the coast of Kerala were fascinated by the fruit and introduced it to the world as Mango.

Raghunath Peshwa of the Marathas planted 10 million mango trees as a sign of Maratha supremacy. Folklore has it that it was a fruit from these trees that eventually turned into the famous Alphonso. The advent of the Europeans eventually affected the mango, and it became simply a fruit – the British had no use for it in matters of diplomacy. Though the fruit retained its superiority of taste over the years of, many local varieties were lost and several new ones emerged.

y, the curvaceous shape of mangoes, which has long held the fascination of weavers and designers, has become an iconic Indian motif

The fruit thrives in a tropical climate and is India’s national fruit. India is a land obsessed with the mango and is unsurprisingly the world’s largest producer and consumer of mangoes. India consumes mangoes in abundance in both its raw and ripe forms. The fruit is a symbol of prosperity and happiness, which is why it is used in one way or the other in most rituals of the region.  And this is not just the fruit but also its buds and its leaves.

Nowadays, the curvaceous shape of the mango has become an iconic Indian motif.

Because summers to me spell mangoes and because nothing quite tastes like a raw mango, I am sharing the family recipe of a hot and sweet raw mango chutney which is assured to ignite your taste buds;

  1. Wash dry and peel 3  average- small  sized raw mangoes and cut them into  thick slices
  2. Heat a pan with ½ tbsp. of cold-pressed  oil (mustard oil is the best if you appreciate the flavour)
  3. When the oil sizzles add ½  tsp. of mustard seeds and let them pop. Follow this with ½ tsp of cumin seeds, and ¼ tsp. each of fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds (saunf) and onion seeds (kalonji). Let them crackle. You can be even less generous with the fenugreek seeds, unless you like the bitterness it will add. Don’t skip it though; the chutney will not be the same without it. 
  4. Now add the chopped raw mangoes and stir them well to coat with the spices.
  5. Now add a tsp. each of red chilli powder, turmeric and salt as per taste. You can ad more chilli powder if you like it hot.  
  6. Add 3 tbsp. of dark organic jaggery and give it a good stir. Add 1/4 cup of water and turn on the heat.
  7. Let the water boil. Cover and cook. Add a little bit more water if the mixture gets too dry.
  8. Place a lid and allow the liquid to thicken and incorporate all the myriad flavours. 
  9. The chutney is done when the raw mangoes are floating in a thick flowing sauce.  
  10. Allow to cool, transfer to a sterilized airtight glass jar and store in the refrigerator.
  11. Consume within 4-5 days if it does not get over sooner.
  12. You can enjoy the flavours with roti or rice or dosa.   

Everest calling

Bittu was a young sixty-four. He had made grand plans for celebrating his sixty-five years on our rock with a party in style. He was going to do the one thing he had wanted to do ever since he was a young boy growing up in a hilly region in a small village in the Southern part of the country. Living amongst the hills and running up and down them several times a day had been just a way of life. What Bittu wanted to do, was travel to Nepal, amid the imposing Himalayas and see Sagarmatha as Mount Everest was referred to by the locals. As a young boy he wanted to be a mountaineer, the bitter cold, the dangerously thin air and the treacherous terrain had seemed outright exciting. But life had other plans and he had not taken that road.

The mighty Himalayas

When he was 17, Balachandra finished his matriculation and moved to the city in search of a job. On his first day in the city, someone called him Bittu. He liked the name and started introducing himself as Bittu and the name stuck. Even his wife Sumitra, had not known that his name was not Bittu till she saw it printed on her own wedding card.

The village Bittu grew up in was so small that it did not make even make a mark on the map of the district. To reach the village from the closest bus station one had to cross a stream and trek several kilometres uphill. The village had only eleven families and no running water or electricity. They would trudge downhill to the flatland to find the first water-well. Later the government built a water pump just down the hill and fetching water got easier. 

Bittu was the oldest of five children. When he was twelve, his mother died in child birth. A few days later, his baby brother too died. So, it remained five siblings.

The family lead a life of subsistence. In their backyard grew coconut trees and banana plants.  They cultivated a small variety of vegetables, just enough for the family.  If there was ever any spare, it was sold in the market and the extra money was generally used to buy fabric. This fabric was then used to make clothes for the children by the only lady in the village who knew how. That is why Bittu and his siblings always had clothes with the same print. His father worked on a farm on the flat land, where they grew rice.  After the rice was reaped, the landowner would give him a bag to take home for his family. This would have to last them the whole year till the next bag was received.

Every evening after the day’s work was done; the whole family would sit by candlelight and share their stories of the day. Shyamala, his sister would often be making yarn from the jute bags in which the rice was packaged for transport. She would then use the yarn to make bags which all the siblings carried to school. Manohar, his brother had a great sense of humour and was an entertaining stand-up comedian. If only that profession existed then; he would have been famous. Neela was a wonderful singer; Jaya would play the harmonium and Bittu the tabla. They were mostly self-taught but were guided by their father who used to sometimes sing at the old temple in their district. In the dark silent village, the sound of their music lingered on.  Their father would sit back and enjoy the pleasant scene.

An acquaintance of the family who lived in the city was kind enough to find Bittu a job in a textile mill. That is how he found himself in the city at 17. He worked in the folding section, and all he had to do was hand-fold bed-sheets and wrap them in brown paper with a string. He did not care much for the job, but he was grateful for it as it assisted him in feeding himself, renting a bed and still having some money to send back home. What really kept Bittu going to the mill each day was his encouraging boss who helped him enrol into night school. Bittu was an intelligent and hard-working young man and very soon he got admission into a prestigious university. He was the first person in his family to become not just a graduate but an engineer.

As the years went by, he got married to Sumitra, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She had a big heart that was filled with kindness and generosity. She encouraged Bittu to bring his siblings to the city so they could all get an education and make something of themselves.  Bittu had his own house now, courtesy his father-in- law and could arrange to bring his father and siblings to the city. Very soon his was the only family from the entire district where all the children of the family, even the ladies had a college degree.

Life went on and, one day Bittu retired as the head of a textile company who exported fabric around the globe.  His boys were both studying at University abroad and he and Sumitra had moved to a city close to the hills of his childhood home. He had travelled a large part of the world as a part of his job and had vacationed at some glorious locations. But he had not yet made it to the place that had beckoned him since he had been a child. He had discussed this with Sumitra, and she had always encouraged him to go. Yet, every time he had made plans, something had come up and he had to amend them. He often wondered if he would ever make it to that one place which had called to him since he was a young boy.

Maybe it was too late; he had been a senior citizen for a few years now. A footballer in his young days, he was not as strong as he had been and some days his knees ached. The thoughts however, were not letting go, dreams which used to fill his sleep were now creeping into his mind during the day. As days became months, he knew he had to do something about it. He owed it to himself and to life which had given him so much. He knew he would be unable to look back a few years later and hear himself say, ‘Maybe I should have done that just a few years ago, when I could.’ With his mind steadfast on his goal, he got around to doing it the best way he knew how. He got on the internet and joined an online travel group and posted the destination and sought help from seasoned travellers and experts. His query had a snowball effect and there were many who offered to guide him step by step and help him make his dream come true.

His dream had never been about just him and his next big challenge was getting his siblings to agree to his plans and join him. No sooner had he sent out the invites that he started receiving calls from his siblings dissuading him from embarking on such a treacherous adventure. They sought reason and citied examples of what happened to those who took up such expeditions unprepared. This was just what Bittu had expected from his loving and over-protective family and he had prepared his responses well.

He began by telling them that all his life he had done what he was supposed to do for the benefit of his loved ones. He told them that the jobs had filled his pockets, but adventure would fill his soul. Particularly this one, as it was so long awaited. He got very emotional when he told them that he did not want to die without embracing the daring adventure that his life was meant to be. He appealed to their minds and mostly to their hearts. He hoped to convince them when he told them that in Life, great adventures were meant to be shared with good friends and his siblings had always been his best friends. He told them he wanted to share this adventure with them. He said he would organise it all, they only had to prepare themselves and they would all be there to support each other along the way. He promised them that this was sure of make it to one of their most unforgettable trips ever. They agreed to join in because they were enthused and wanted to feel the accomplishment and sense of satisfaction Bittu so passionately talked about.

They had all had it tough as kids, but things had become better and now they were all comfortably placed in life.  Bittu agreed that the trip sounded difficult but then things always sounded tougher on paper. Nothing was ever accomplished by talking about it, except great speeches perhaps.  He put forward the plan. They all agreed to trust the process and dive right in. Bittu had with the assistance of his online guides planned a trek classified as ‘Easy’. They had also prepared exercise plans and diet plans to get everyone ready and they had a full eight months to prepare.

By the time of their departure, the 5 siblings were transformed versions of their former selves. As novice trekkers who had only run up and down hills in their childhood, the thought of the Himalayas had been daunting. Whilst many of the world’s tallest mountains and toughest mountaineers were in Nepal, they discovered that there were many trekking routes that were far easier. Most of all, the trek they had planned promised to offer a wondrous opportunity to experience a landscape like no other. They were all looking forward to their journey with enthusiasm and vigour. The trek they were attempting was called the Royal trek, which aptly received its name after Prince Charles and his 90 camp followers walked the route in 1981. The route was also frequently used by the Nepalese royal family.

They flew into Kathmandu and after a few days for altitude acclimatisation they began their trek from Pokhra, which is the gateway to the Annapurna circuit, one of the most popular trails in the world. Their trek though less well-known compared to others in the region took them through one of the most off-beat paths in Nepal.  Over the next four days, they passed through some incredible scenery, stunning rice terraces on hillsides, lush forests and epic views of the Annapurna range. They had arranged to camp in the open for 2 nights and had stayed at one of the quaint tea houses along the route on their first.  The days passed only too soon and before long their trek concluded at the stunning Begnas Lake, just in time for a refreshing drink.  

Bittu’s dream had been about seeing Mt. Everest with his siblings and after getting that far they could not return without satisfying that aspiration. However, Bittu knew that a trek to Everest base camp and witness Everest’s daunting summit soar so high was a fairly long and gruelling route. It required a good level of stamina and fitness and the family was not ready for it now. Perhaps, they would do it another year. The flavour of the mountains they had received was not about to leave them anytime soon.

They however did see the Everest base camp and the majestic Sagarmatha, but in a different style. They took the Everest Base Camp Helicopter Tour where they saw Mt. Everest and the entire Everest region before finally landing at Everest Base Camp. The tour had a perfect 5 passenger + 1 captain capacity. It was a thrilling day long tour with a short landing at Kalapathar which offered one of the best views of the highest mountain in the world and the surrounding mountains. They began at the capital Kathmandu and after spending hours flying over Tengboche, Dingboche, Gorakshep and the Khumbu glacier they reached the Base camp of Mount Everest.  The helicopter flew them over some spectacular scenery, stopped for a refuel and finally dropped them back at Kathmandu. The helicopter tour which was touted as one of best aerial tours in the world had lived up to its name.

In just over a week the siblings had experienced the majesty of nature and celebrated Bittu’s sixty-fifth birthday at almost the top of the world. They had lived out Bittu’s dream and Bittu could now sleep a content man. 

A BIG thank you to my dear friend Sarah who shared these pictures from her recent Himalayan base camp trek.

Beauty in silence

River running through the mountains

A temple in the mountains

A room with this view

Between two mountains

Along the trail

Diya’s memory book

Diya read through eyes filled with tears. Her dear friend had published a flawless post about his childhood in beautiful Binsar. He wrote of his mother, a woman whose love was as deep and as wide as the valleys. She had passed away when he had been quite young and he could still feel the pain of the loss. However, these days the intensity of the pain was overshadowed by the numerous joyful memories he had of growing up in the hills with his mother and three older sisters. Time may not heal the pain but it does provide us with many ways to deal with it. Diya reflected upon this and felt blessed that her reminiscences of a childhood spent with some remarkable people still made her heart sing.

When Diya was two, her baby sister was born and it was an exciting time for her. Overnight she had been elevated to a special place; now she was a ‘didi’ to someone. Her parents had spent a lot of time discussing the arrival of the baby with her, but for a two-year old nothing really mattered till it mattered. She had a responsibility now, of helping with the baby. Diya was a born performer, she loved to sing and dance for anyone who would stop and watch. She knew a few songs without the correct words and only a few dance moves, but she did those with gusto. When the baby came home, she found that the baby was quite not as interesting as she had expected. She was no fun at all. All she did was sleep and cry and feed.  So, Diya thought that if she could sing and dance for her, maybe she would wake up and join in. So, she did just that, but the baby continued to sleep. The creative mind came up with an idea. She thought that if she could turn on all the lights in the room, the baby would wake up and then they could play together. To do that she needed to reach the switch board. If she climbed onto something, she could reach it from the bed. And so, she took the fastest way she knew how. And that was the scene her mother witnessed as she entered the room, the sight of little Diya, standing on tiptoes on her baby sister’s tummy as she turned on all the lights in the room.

As a kid, Diya had a sweet tooth. Not just any sweet tooth, but quite a committed one that went around knocking neighbour’s doors requesting for small pieces of jaggery. The neighbours obliged, not just because Diya was only three, but because she always asked politely and thanked profusely. Most kids wanted something bigger; like the chocolates in shiny wrappers or cookies with cream fillings. No kid ever asked for something so ordinary, something available in every Indian kitchen, a small piece of jaggery. The joy that sharing the jaggery brought to the little child and the older folk was testimony to the fact that real joy is in the simplest of things.

Diya often visited her maternal grandparents who lived in a far-off suburb of the city. It was not really that far away, but for a five-year old, a 40-minute train journey accompanied by some walking was quite stretched. However, the prospect of spending time with two people she absolutely adored made the journey light and fun. Her grandfather would visit his daughter every Saturday morning and, on his return, he would sometimes take little Diya with him for the weekend.

Diya loved everything about her grandparent’s house. It was on the ground floor of a single storey house and was surrounded by interesting plants and trees. From the rather large windows she could see squirrels and birds and during the monsoons the croaks of frogs would fill the air. Her grandparents loved having her over, because she was an easy child to please, she made no big demands for toys or food and she seemed to find great joy in simple activities. One of them was sweeping the porch of the house. She was not really interest in cleaning, but she loved to see the little particles of dust that would rise up and shine gold in the sunlight. In that gold-dust she imagined a whole other world, a world of brave girls, fairies and princesses.  Her picture was so clear that she could talk of the happenings on those lands of her imagination with much detail.

 Another thing she loved doing was bringing animals home. Her grand-parents lived in a part of town where the old-style houses were making way to modern constructions. The construction workers would live in tents around the construction sites with their families and they would usually have some dogs or cats for company. Diya would look for a pup or cat that was tiny enough to carry in her small hands. She would then bring it home, feed it a good meal and play with it for a while.  She would then promptly drop it back before it started missing its family.

Afternoon at the grand-parents’ house meant nap-time. More needed for the grand-parents than Diya, who had many things to do than waste her hours sleeping. On the shelf above the door to the main room, were two books she spent time with every-time she visited. One was a colourful book of Yogi bear and the other was an atlas. This was really the favourite. It was a gorgeous hard bound in a dark green colour with ‘Reader’s Digest Illustrated World Atlas’ in flourishing gold lettering. She would spend hours looking over a single map. It was the most fascinating book. The author must be so very smart to know all this, considered Diya’s little mind. 

Her grandmother who knew of Diya’s weakness for sweets would cajole her to sleep on the pretext of getting her a sweet treat when she would be up from the nap. Grudgingly, Diya would agree. No sooner would her head hit the pillow; she would be out like a light. Her grand-parents were quite hard-up and they could not afford to buy sweets from the store. Diya knew none of that, because it did not matter. She loved her grandparents and that was it. Diya knew that grandma would keep her word. When she woke up from her sleep, she would always find a miniscule steel bowl by her pillow. And in that bowl, would be a piece of the most delicious jaggery. 

One day, when she was six, her mother had promised that she would make gulab jamuns from scratch for her girls that afternoon. Diya could not wait to get a warm melt-in-the mouth dumpling soaking in saffron flavoured sugar syrup into her mouth. She could not wait for afternoon to come. Her mother began at the kitchen counter, and Diya though older than her sister was not yet tall enough to see the activity there. Her sister was given a chair to stand on and that gave her a substantial advantage. Diya asked to share chair space with her sister and they both climbed on. Things were going remarkably well, till the frying of the dumplings in hot ghee began. They were taking far too long according to Diya. Her mother told her that to have perfect gulab jamuns it was important that the dumplings were fried till they were a dark golden colour. That meant there was something interesting happening in the pan which made the white balls turn a golden brown. Diya needed to get a clearer view but so did her sister. In the process, her sister accidently nudged her and she toppled to the floor. Nevertheless, what ensued was no crying or complaining as the only focus was eating golden gulab jamuns and nothing could come in the way of that. 

The sound of a message on her phone brought her back from her reverie with a deep sense of contentment.  These wonderful people had made her childhood enriching; not with things, but with their time, their kindness and their love.  They were all gone now, without goodbyes. Diya smiled as she recollected her favourite quote by Rumi, ‘Goodbyes are for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul, there is no separation.’

Clouds of cotton

Her little boy was turning 5 next week.

All he had been talking about for the last few weeks was of a cake which was high with clouds of cotton. What he meant was a cake topped with heaps of icing.  

“And how high is that?”, Savi would ask to which Karan would promptly reply,” As high as nani’s house” and he would spread his hands out wide. His nani lived on the 21st floor of a high-rise and from her window everything looked really tiny. Karan knew that this was because he was up so high. Savi smiled and wondered just how she was going to do that.

Seven years ago, Savi had married an army officer and within a few days, she had been whisked from her home in the city to a small town near the border. It was peaceful there but it got really lonely. Savi had done the best she could to keep herself occupied. She kept a beautiful home and made friends the other army wives. But something was missing.

One day, one of her new friend’s told her about this initiative the army wives had taken up to provide a fresh home cooked meal to the children at the local school. Apart from the army folk the only other locals worked at the salt pans. The land was dry and barren and very solitary. The locals were quite poor and the children often came to school hungry. The thought of a hot nutritious meal was indeed a wonderful idea and Savi jumped in with both feet.

Though Savi had never cooked much before her wedding, she made up for her lack of skills with her zeal and enthusiasm. In just a few weeks she could roll out the fastest rotis. The secret to this was love. Her heart was filled with so much love for those children that seeing their joyful faces as they dunked their roti into a warm curry gave her immense happiness.

Her enthusiasm got her into thinking of new ways she could make the childrens’ days special. She came up with a plan and worked diligently towards it. Very soon she had mastered the art of baking. She began taking cakes to school on special days and the kids loved it. This small act of kindness by the ladies had engendered a positive impact on the children. Attendance to school had spiked, the children started learning better, there was hardly ever a sick-day and most of all they were happy.

Savi soon realised that though the kids appreciated her cake, what they really liked was that they got to celebrate with their friends. It was the charm of being able to laugh and frolic around together. Savi noticed that the children relished the icing much more than the cake. They would take a dollop and savour it as it melted on their tongues.


A few months on, Karan came into her life and Savi got much occupied with the baby. By then her husband had a posting at a new town which had meant moving homes for Savi. Karan was the perfect baby with dark eyes, long lashes, soft curls and dimpled cheeks. He had a ready smile for everyone and was in general a happy kid. But, by the time he turned two he got sick quite regularly and was taken for investigations. It was found that Karan had allergy issues which meant he would have to avoid certain foods all his life. For a young mother who had feared the worse, this was good news. The family would adjust.

“Mama, can we have cake with clouds of cotton?”, Karan repeated.

 Savi, was brought back to the present and began contending her current dilemma of creating clouds without dairy. The only way she knew of creating soft peaks of icing was by beating full fat cream over ice cold water. Karan however, was allergic to dairy. It had all been fine when he was little and was given tea cakes. Of late he had begun attending birthday parties of friends and had to be denied cake. Savi had promised him she would make him an iced cake at home and he could have as much as he wanted. He had always been an understanding boy, but as his birthday grew closer he was getting rather adamant about an iced cake. He would talk about it all the time, then get restless and sometimes so angry that he would throw a tantrum.

Savi knew she could not deny him forever. She had to find a way.  

After Karan’s diagnosis had been out, Savi had mastered the art of vegan and gluten-free baking, but had not given much thought to icing. Today though, she was desperate, she had to find a way. Savi hoped Google would save the day. She began her search for ‘dairy free icing recipes’ and pages later; all she had come across were recipes using coconut milk. This was not an option, as little Karan was allergic to coconut as well.

Just when she was planning to turn off the laptop and head for a nap something caught her eye. It was a link to a blog post by an American lady which said ‘Vegan Aquafaba icing’. She was expecting to find a recipe which called for ingredients she would not find at the local grocery, nonetheless she was curious.  What was aquafaba?

She clicked on the link and went straight to the ingredient list. She was now a pro at scouting for recipes that worked for her family. The icing called for only 4 ingredients; all but one she already had in her kitchen cupboard. As she read, her eyes turned wide. This recipe sounded incredibly simple and almost dreamlike. She had to give this a try.

The next morning, Savi had everything on the kitchen top, the materials, her trusted hand-beater and her deep mixing bowl. She plugged in and began to follow the instructions to the T. Right before her eyes, she was creating magic; chick-pea liquid was miraculously getting transformed into soft white icing. Never in her years of being in the kitchen had she witnessed something so remarkable. The recipe said it would not stay this way long and would collapse. For Savi that did not matter, she would work with it, may be refrigerator would come in handy.  It started as a grin, grew into a laugh and then the tears started streaming down her cheeks. Savi knew she was being silly but her relief at this find could not contain her joy. This was one of life’s simple pleasures.

If you too are curious about aquafaba, you could Google it, but Savi has been kind to share what she has tried and learned, so you can know right away.

Vegan aquafaba icing

1 cup of Chickpea water either homemade or from a can 

¼ teaspoon of Cream of Tartar optional but comes highly recommended

I teaspoon vanilla extract (not the artificial essence, this is the real deal)

½ cup of icing sugar / confectioner’s sugar

Before you scrunch up your nose in disgust at the main ingredient, let me clarify that yes, we are talking about creating icing for a cake using water drained from cooked chole. And you will never know how good it is, till you try. 

And with that said, let’s begin the mixing;

  1. Take a deep large bowl and combine the chickpea water and the cream of tartar.
  2. Now begins the magic: beat it on high for 10 to 15 minutes and you will slowly find the water forming into soft white peaks. You can use a hand mixer or a stand mixer for this.
  3. Slowly add the sugar and the vanilla extract and continue to beat on high for another 10 minutes till it forms stiff peaks. Stop once here!! Do not over-whip, else it will deflate. 
  4. You can use it to dollop and pipe over cakes and cookies. Use immediately and keep it under refrigeration.

Savi adds some notes so that you have a successful outcome the first time around

Note 1: This frosting needs the chickpea water to be starchy and a bit slimy (yes, picture that), like the kind you find in the cans. So if you are planning on making the water from scratch soak the dried chickpeas for a good 10-12 hours in 2 cups of water, longer if you can wait. Pressure cook for 1 hour (15-16 whistles on a low flame should work) and let it vent naturally. Do not add bicarbonate of soda or salt when you pressure cook. The chickpeas will be very soft and mushy, perfect for hummus and the water will be starchy.

Note 2: Savi suggests using chickpea liquid made from scratch rather than from a can because for one cans are lined with chemicals that affect our hormones. Secondly chemical preservatives are added to make the chickpeas in cans last longer. To get a good liquid from scratch, you can reduce the liquid further if you feel it is not starchy enough when out of the pressure cooker.

Note 3: This icing is best used immediately, as it can begin to collapse quickly. If you want to make it in advance, you can keep it in the refrigerator for up to 2 hours and then re-whip for a few minutes to reform the stiff peaks before use. Once your cake or cookie is iced, keep refrigerated.

Note 4: You may come across recipes that say cream of tartar is optional, but according to Savi, this is a must unless you are allergic to it. The cream of tartar is what will help stabilise the chickpea water and create the stiff peaks you want. She says it’s a mandatory ingredient if you want a stiffer peaked frosting. Savi adds that some people replace cream of tartar with something acidic like a few drops of lemon or vinegar, but she has never tried that.  

Note 5: Savi’s only complaint with aquafaba is that it has to be used quickly or it begins to fall. So, once you get your vegan frosting done, top your desserts and serve it up. Just like Svi has you too can learn ways to work with this.

Note 6: This is magical and you may get hooked, but do not consume aquafaba too often if you have digestive issues.  

Note 7: Finally No, it does not taste of chickpeas.

(skip this part if you don’t want any spoilers)

Unravelling the magic

Aquafaba has around 1% protein while an egg white is around 10% protein and 90% water content. Because aquafaba is the liquid of chickpeas, which are high in protein, the liquid drained from chickpeas also has protein and carbohydrates which when whipped thicken in a manner similar to egg whites and heavy cream.

Because of this property of chick pea liquid, you can then add in icing sugar / confectioner’s sugar and vanilla along with the cream of tartar to give it a meringue-like texture.

Aquafaba can be successfully used as an egg replacer in baking. You can enjoy macarons and meringues even if you are vegan.

Did you ever guess that the chickpea liquid you sent down the drain could be wild and magical?

And if you are awaiting the happy ending, you must know that no one enjoyed the cake with icing as much as Karan that day. He had the most marvellous party with friends and family. If you ever remind him of that day, he will skip about joyfully and tell you with his hands wide open that his mama had baked him a cake which had clouds of cotton as high as his nani’s house. 

Aquafaba had saved the day, but let that be our secret.   

Bhairu’s moment

Bhairavi entered their home and their hearts the very moment she stepped into their lives. Bhairu as she is lovingly called was a gift from the driver of the Iyer household’s neighbour who had recently had a litter  and was looking for good homes for the pups.

For a Tam-Bram pure vegetarian family who could not picture even an egg entering their home, the idea of a dog joining their family was far-fetched. However, the pure heart of the driver only saw the kind people and was sure they would be a perfect fit. Also the 8 year-old girl of the household would love to have a pup and would make a wonderful big sister. That is how 45 day old Bhairu entered the home of the Iyer family.

Years went by and girl and pup grew up together.  When the girl would leave for school, Bairu would always be at the gate watching her leave and again in the late afternoon when it was time for the girl to return, Bhairu would be at the gate again.

The Iyer’s lived on a quiet street in a wealthy part of the town. The street had a row of pretty houses with huge verandas. The street was lined with mango trees and during the summer months the sweet smell of the ripened fruits filled the air. The mangoes beckoned to the parrots and the squirrels who noisily relished the succulent fruits. Bhairu enjoyed barking at the invaders high up in the trees from her place on the ground and she would run madly all around. She felt a great sense of accomplishment from driving out the noisy raiders from the trees around her house.  Bhairu was much loved by all and the little kids in the neighbourhood would sneak out treats from their home for her. Bhairu would give them a sloppy grin and sometimes even shake their hands.

One exceptionally warm afternoon when all was quiet, Bhairu was lying sprawled on the veranda looking for some action when suddenly, her ears pricked, she tilted her head intrigued. Something was not quite right at the house across and she just had to find out. The house was inhabited by the Kumar couple who were away visiting their son, a manager at a petroleum plant in Kazakhstan. They had taken a vacation after a long time and it had been just over a week since they were gone. Mr. Kumar prided himself on his beautifully manicured garden and hardly ever left it unattended. Due to the persistent requests from their son they had finally agreed to visit him. They had taken all the necessary precautions for the safety of their home and had checked and re-checked all their locks numerous times. Finally, after much ado they had taken a taxi to the airport accompanied by their huge assortment of baggage.  

But someone knew about the loose latch on the window that gave entry to the kitchen.   The one window which had been overlooked, as it was at the rear of the house,  away from the main street. Someone also knew that the Kumar’s were a wealthy couple and that Mrs. Kumar did not believe in banks and lockers. Someone knew that she kept all her gold jewellery, which she had in plenty and bundles of notes, again she had in plenty in steel drums all covered up with raw rice in the cupboard of the pantry. You may think it strange, but that according to Mrs. Kumar was safer than the bank and had never let her down. She prided herself on her cost-effective and innovative locker system which was a secret passed on from her mother when she had been a newly wedded bride.  But now, the wrong ears had probably heard of this unique locker system and that someone had hatched a plan to empty the pantry.

Bhairu, peeped through the gate and could hear it but she could not see any movement at the house across. However, she was quite sure something was amiss and she did the only thing she knew that would get her an audience. She started creating a commotion. She started howling, long mournful howls that were usually left for full moon nights. There was that particular high-pitched howl which could bring you back from the dead. That particular howl was sure to annoy old Mr. Lal, their next door neighbour who was then sure to come out with a bucket of water to dunk Bhairu to shut her up. And her plan worked like clockwork.

 No sooner had she howled a few times, that there were loud noises at the neighbour’s and out came Mr. Lal huffing with annoyance, adjusting his glasses with one hand while he struggled with a bucket full of water in the other.

From the moment Bhairu saw him, she knew her plan was working. Old Mrs. Iyer came to the door to check out the scene and so did young Balu, the local baker and district body-building champion who stopped outside the gate enthralled to watch the show. Bhairu stopped howling and started giddily barking as she moved towards the gate. By then 2 other passers-by had also stopped to stare.  Once she knew she had garnered her support, she took a long run-up and jumped over the gate and ran straight on towards the Kumar’s house, jumping over the wall and knocking over a potted rose shrub. Balu followed at her heels and so did the 2 other men. The older folk looked at each other fascinated. There were loud noises at the other side and Balu started shouting for the police. Mr. Lal acted pronto and within the next 20 minutes, Maran the new gardener of the Kumar’s magnificent backyard was found to have been planning a robbery. He had been almost half-way into the kitchen before he was pulled down and brought to the ground by a strong punch on his nose by Balu. The police arrived soon enough and packed Maran up in their car and drove off. In the next one hour it was back to being just another warm late afternoon and the sun slowly making its way towards the horizon.    

But for Bhairu and her family the evening held a lot of promise. The Iyer family had a lot of visitors that day and everyone wanted to celebrate. Mr. Lal got a special cake with, “Bhairu, you are a star!!” iced on it and someone arranged for snacks. Bhairu who was not usually given cake received a large slice which she thoroughly savoured.

That night, Bhairu was still wondering really had happened that day that she had been present with delicious cake. Her mouth still watering, she started dreaming about more such exciting days and of course, about cake.   

For those of you who would like to see “our star”, my dear friend, who at only 15 is a budding artist has made us a sketch. 

“Our Star “, awaiting her next adventure

A new way of plantains

The advantage of being from a country with so many regions and a huge repertoire of vegetarian cuisine is that there is never a vegetable tha\nt you do not learn to cook in a new way.

The other day at work my colleague and I were discussing the weather and how the veggies in the markets looked half-dead due to the summer heat. I, who always love visiting the market place and rejoice of the variety of colours and fresh smells, could not agree more.

So the conversation in its meandering way finally moved to a popular one among ladies, “I don’t know what to cook for this evening”, Trupti sighed, “Also standing by the stove-top in this humidity is like taking multiple hot baths”.

Trupti lives on the top floor of her apartment complex, and during the summer months her house quite resembles the insides of an oven. The only thing missing are the wafts of hot air, which you can’t see but you can sure feel.

So, as we continued to discuss the consequences of the summer weather, from the corner of my eye I could see Manav peeling a banana for his snack. Now Manav is a health freak. He is 6 feet 2 and I am sure he hides a mean six-pack under his well-tailored slim-fit shirts. I was suddenly reminded of something and it had everything to do with bananas. Not the ripe ones but the raw ones which we call plantains.

Plantains are not a very popular vegetable all across the country, but in the tropics of the Southern and coastal states, where bananas grow in plenty all year round, people have high respect for this plant. Almost every part of the banana plant finds some use in the Indian home. I am always left in awe of the ancestors who discovered these. Traditional secrets we cannot afford to lose.

We only know of the sweet fruit the banana, but we cannot forget that the flowers make for delectable fritters; the leaves make fantastic organic and bio-degradable plates. The stem is really not a stem at all, but the flower stalk of the banana plant. The edible part of the banana stem is the inner portion of the fibrous stalk. The stalk though not commonly used, reveals a crisp texture and a mild flavour which is savoured in South Indian cuisine. A secret to be revealed here is that in ayurvedic practice, the banana stem is used to aid in weight-loss. Now this is not tried, but this sure can be. The beauty of the fruit is that it can be eaten both ripe and raw. The ripe fruit as is and the raw one into fritters or a curry.

And that is what the snacking reminded me of, plantain curry. This is a traditional recipe of the fisher-folk from the island city of Mumbai. Yes, Mumbai cuisine has more to offer than wada-pav and pav-bhaji. But, you will not find a plate of this delicious and nutritious curry in cookbooks or in restaurants. The only place you will find this is in the kitchens of the locals.

So in case you do not know any Mumbai locals who may invite you for a meal, but would like to sample this curry, I am sharing this recipe here.

Now I am not a chef or a wanna-be chef. I do not do measurements except when I bake, which is not so often. I eyeball my ingredients; I look at the colour, feel the texture and wake up to the smells. I may on occasion sample it… all I really do is trust my senses to create a good meal. I am trying to add some measurements here, but if you think the quantities do not seem right, trust yourself.

Island city Plantain curry (should serve 2 unless 1 eats it all up)


2 plantains

1 medium sized red onion

2 handfuls of fresh green peas

2 tbsp fresh grated coconut

1-2 green chillis (as per your ability to take the heat)

a handful of coriander leaves

2 cloves of garlic

Salt to taste

Spices: ½ tsp mustard seeds, ½ tsp turmeric, a sprig of curry leaves, ¼ tsp garam masala powder (the one that is in your pantry will work)

  1. First let’s get everything ready. Make a rough paste of the fresh coconut, deseeded green chilli, coriander leaves, a clove of garlic. Do not add any water while making this.
  2. Finely chop the red onion fine.
  3. Wash the fresh green peas.
  4. Wash, pat dry, peel and chop the plantains.
  5. Take a pan and add some un-refined cold-pressed oil (that’s the only kind of oil I use, if I do not use cow milk ghee)
  6. When the oil warms up, add the mustard seeds. Enjoy hearing them pop and go all over the place.
  7. Then add some turmeric and washed and dried curry leaves. Give them all a nice stir.
  8. Add in the onions and a lil bit of salt to help the onions cook more evenly.
  9. When the onions look half-done add the peas and a wee bit of water. Cover the pan with a plate and add some water on the plate. The idea is to allow the vegetable to cook in the steam till half done.
  10. Add a bit of chilli powder here, if you would like it a bit hot.
  11. Now in go the chopped bananas, some salt as per taste and a lil bit more of the water. The water is just to prevent the vegetables from sticking to the bottom. The vegetable should not be swimming in the liquid.
  12. Cover again with a plate and cook. Do remember to add water onto the plate if it has dried out. This water is what helps the steam cooking happen so elegantly.
  13. When almost done, add the coconut mix and stir well to incorporate all the ingredients.
  14. The plantains should be cooked but not so cooked that they fall apart. They should be able hold themselves well.
  15. Turn off the heat and let your senses go on a ride.
  16. Enjoy with steaming hot rice or chapatis/ rotis/ parathas
  17. Remember to spread the joy and share the flavours with family and friends.

And now some tips, because we all like them;

Tip 1: Plantains release a sticky sap which can make it an arduous task to peel and chop. Apply some oil to your palms and to the knife for a clean cut.

Tip 2: to help the fresh peas cook evenly, make a paste of a small clove of garlic and apply it to the peas after they are washed. Leave them that way for a while before adding to the curry to cook.

Tip 3: Cooking with steam, helps to retain the colour, flavour and nutritional value of the vegetable. This method reduces the amount of oil needed in the cooking.

And going back to my story, I reminded Trupti of the plantain recipe she had told me about some days ago, the one she had yet to try.

Well, she made it that evening and relished a lovely meal with her family. For those moments the heat was forgotten and the ceiling fan was exceptionally efficient.